$2 Billion In Gift Cards Will Go Unused This Year

If you received gifts this last holiday season, there’s a good chance at least one of them was a gift card. But while the cards are an easy way to give someone a gift other than cash or socks, a number of people just aren’t getting around to spending the money on those cards in a timely manner.

The Philadelphia Inquirer talked to a researcher who calculates that $2 billion in gift cards will go unredeemed this year. Whether it’s because they are lost, forgotten about — or maybe the recipient doesn’t actually want anything at that particular store — that’s a large pile of money that’s been handed over to retailers who haven’t had to do anything but scan a plastic card.

On an up note, this number is a significant drop from the 2007 high-water mark, during which $2.6 billion was lost to fees alone, while another $3.5 billion vanished due to expiring cards. Thankfully, subsequent changes to gift card laws have gotten rid of most of those fees and expiration dates.

But what happens to that money that goes unclaimed? The Inquirer reports that some states, rather than let retailers just claim the unused cards as profit, have seized unused gift card and gift certificate funds, meaning that consumers now need to go through their state treasurer to get the value of their gift. As of 2008, New York state had taken in $9.6 million in unclaimed gift card money but only $2,150 had been distributed to consumers.

The Inquirer cites the following from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s website:

Under Pennsylvania law, unused gift certificates are turned over to the Pennsylvania Department of the Treasury as unclaimed property. The business must turn the gift certificate over two years after expiration date. If there is no expiration date, then it must be turned over five years from the date of issuance. You may claim certificates from the Department of the Treasury by calling 1-800-222-2046. Thus far, the Pennsylvania state treasury has collected more than $2.7 million in unredeemed gift certificates and is currently seeking the rightful owners.

“Ultimately, it’s important for consumers to use their gift cards sooner rather than wait and possibly forget them,” says the commonwealth’s Treasurer Rob McCord. “The thing to look out for is whether your gift cards have expiration dates or fees… If they do, your gifts may legally become unclaimed property.”

The Pulse: Don’t let those gift cards be a gift to retailers or the state [Philly.com]


Edit Your Comment

  1. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    I think we might have to just use our gift cards. If we have a mediocre or average meal, at least it was free.

  2. Costner says:

    Just think of what I could do with $2 Billion in Subway gift cards!

    I’d make it rain footlong subs… for EVERYBODY! Free cookies too!

  3. samonela says:

    Geez I’ve got about $45 worth of cards in my glove box right now…

    $15 of which is on a Target GC from my birthday last year…

    Did I mention that my birthday is January 12?

    • PHRoG says:

      15th here. ;)

    • Martha Gail says:

      Maybe you know someone who is in need who might like them? If someone doesn’t have money for groceries $15 at target might buy peanut butter, jelly and bread to get them by or they might enjoy a meal at Crapplebee’s (or whatever place you have a card to) that you wouldn’t.

  4. scoutermac says:

    Sounds like a good reason to go out to dinner tonight on gift cards from Christmas.

  5. nearly_blind says:

    I tell anyone that may end up giving me a gift card that I prefer a Amazon.com card. You can enter the number into your account immediately then throw the card away and not worry about it again.

    • Kaonashi says:

      That’s what I did this year. Somewhat backfired though in that I bought Amazon Gift Cards for everyone else and since you can’t use gift balances to pay for gift cards I ended up paying cash for gift cards for everyone else while getting roughly the same amount back in Amazon Gift cards. I’m out the cash but at least I can buy a mountain of books, dvds, and miscellany.

      • Kaonashi says:

        I forgot to mention that I had a huge gift balance before Christmas shopping time. Without that information my above comment doesn’t really make any logical sense.

  6. rlmiller007 says:

    With all the stores that go out of business it’s best to run right out and spend them.

  7. Not Given says:

    It’s good practice to check the unclaimed property website, for every place you’ve lived, regularly. While you’re there, check for your friends’ and relatives’ names, too. If you stand to inherit, look for deceased relatives, too.
    My husband got money that was in his late father’s name and we found a lost tax refund for his mother.

  8. Rebecca K-S says:

    No matter how inappropriate the store associated with a gift card, I will find a way to spend every. Last. Penny.

  9. sjackson12 says:

    Gift cards are given by people who are lazy.

    • rlmiller007 says:

      Not neccasarily. I ask for them because being a techno geek they wouldn’t have a clue what to buy for me.

    • lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

      I get them for my Dad because his hobby is restoring old cars, and I have no idea what exact part he might need at any given time. He has everything else, and doesn’t need anything specific, so this is perfect for him.

    • TasteyCat says:

      I’m happy with gift cards or cash. Not a fan of people who try to get creative.

    • dru_zod says:

      I am looking right now at a gift I received from a person who doesn’t know me all that well, and decided not to be lazy. I don’t want the gift, I won’t use it, and I can’t return it. It probably cost the giver about $20. I wish the giver had been lazy and just given me a $20 gift card.

    • tooluser says:

      You sound just like someone who should never be given a gift. We would probably all be better off without you.

      Does that make you happier?

  10. u1itn0w2day says:

    As crazy as it seems this is a way you can get back at a retailer you don’t like. Companies cannot claim gift card income until the gift card holder spends it. They might be able to collect interest on the money the giver spent to get the card but the cost of card does not count as a sale until it is actually spent. They can be depreciated over time but that’s usually incremental.

    2 Billion dollars in unspent gift cards is theoretically 2 BILLION dollars out of the economy and/or off a company’s balance sheet. At least for the giver’s/buyer’s sake spend that card.

  11. Ecks says:

    I had a friend that would refuse to use gift cards if he received them, and would throw them out. He felt he’d look “cheap” using them.

  12. Frailgesture says:

    I don’t quite get why the government should get involved in unused gift cards/gift certificates. I’m sure businesses look at unused gift cards as 100% pure profit, but if people don’t use them, that’s hardly the business’ fault. I suppose the analogy would be companies that bet on people not mailing in for mail-in rebates, but in a lot of those situations they seem to simply “lose” or otherwise not process the rebates that you’ve earned. If businesses placed undue burdens on using gift cards (use all the money within three months, etc.), I could see getting the government in there, but otherwise it just seems like a waste of resources.

    • u1itn0w2day says:

      The problem is the gift card isn’t 100% profit until it is spent. Accounting wise a company can only take profit on an incremental basis. It might take a couple years of book keeping depending on the expiration date of the card, in many cases there is no expiration date.

      The company has the cash but until the accounting is done they officially can only declare interest from that money. They must also set that money aside on the books until spent.

    • RandomHookup says:

      It’s partly to take away the incentives for businesses to not honor the cards. I think this first came up when states started requiring gift certificates not have expiration dates. Retailers were trying to get you to buy one and then not honoring it down the road because it “expired”. With enough money involved, retailers start thinking about ways to make it hard to redeem the money they already have in their pockets (sort of like how the rebate processing houses want it to be difficult to submit a rebate).

    • Solkanar512 says:

      They did place undue burdens on them by taking the money away from cards. That’s why they got involved.

  13. Martha Gail says:

    Is that why they add fees to gift cards? If the card is eaten up by fees after one year, do they have to turn over the amount of the original card to the government or do they keep the fees?

  14. Alan says:

    My wife is very bad at this. She will go to Kols/walmart/anywhere with 2-3 gift cards in her purse and never use them. Me on the other hand… the normally don’t last more than a week :)

  15. Kaleey says:

    Exactly how can the government return these “to the rightful owners”? The only way would be by using the card number – which means you’d need the card in your possession. I never have to provide my name to buy or use a gift card – so they can’t possibly know who has that gift card now that it’s in my possession.

  16. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    It’s too bad there wasn’t a way to get together a list between family, friends, coworkers and ask (1) what gift cards people have that don’t want them and (2) what gift cards people want but don’t have them. I’m sure trades could take place.

  17. ancientone567 says:

    That’s really some coincidence! I lost 2 Billion in gift cards! Time to call the Department of the Treasury. Think they will buy my BS story?

  18. TasteyCat says:

    I found a Walmart gift card the other day from 2007. I suppose I should spend it. Thing is I don’t go there, ever, but I guess I could just buy something on Walmart.com.

    • tooluser says:

      You should go. It’s an interesting place. Relax, hang out at the McDonalds for a while. Think of something you want, and see what they offer. Maybe chat up a salesperson at the gun rack. See how many shotguns they would let you buy at once. Do they sell live animals? How do you know without going there? Wander down some of the grocery aisles, pick up a random product, and ask a stranger what they think of it. Note their response.

      Report back when you are done.

  19. IGetsAnOpinion says:

    I just found a paper gift certificate from 1999 for Victoria’s Secret. Wonder if they would still let me use it. I bet no one would have a clue how to use it since it’s not scannable!

    • SkepticalSue says:

      I have one of those, too. I’ll be curious if anyone knows the answer to this.

      • RandomHookup says:

        Generally, they will still take them. You may confuse them, but many states limit the expiration of GC (cards or certs) unless they state a specific expiration. Some states are even limiting expiration dates, since it really is a form of cash.

    • SkepticalSue says:

      I have one of those, too. I’ll be curious if anyone knows the answer to this.

    • SkepticalSue says:

      I have one of those, too. I’ll be curious if anyone knows the answer to this.

    • SkepticalSue says:

      I’m sorry about the multiples. I’m not that excited about the VS gift certificate! And I only hit “submit” about the comment once, I promise … something went awry with the interface.

    • SkepticalSue says:

      I’m sorry about the multiples. I’m not that excited about the VS gift certificate! And I only hit “submit” about the comment once, I promise … something went awry with the interface.

  20. Tiffymonster says:

    I just regift gift cards I wont use. I rarely shop at b&m stores so the only gift cards that are worth it for me are amazon.com and I don’t really like those. I prefer someone get me some kind of gift that shows how well they know me. I put a lot of time and energy into buying perfect gifts for people and I cannot stand people who give me gift cards. I can understand it from someone who doesnt know me that well but not from close family/friends.

    • tooluser says:

      Newsflash: The gifts you give are probably not perfect.

      And if they are: Everyone who gets one hates you.

  21. DrRonster says:

    Somehow I think my gift cards get used. I’ll give gift card envelopes containg crisp US dollars with a note telling the giftee to buy the giftcard of their choice since I’m so lazy.

  22. Grungo says:

    I hate gift cards with the blistering heat of a thousand suns. This is why. I will never give a gift card to anyone ever again–cash only.

  23. Starfury says:

    I have a practice when I get a gift card for a store: I spend it right away. It prevents me from digging through the junk drawer in the kitchen and finding it 6 months later.